Encamped refugees in East Africa, especially young children, are only infrequently asked to actively participate in research, and in projects related to the built environment of the camps they inhabit. Besides, humanitarian relief workers are unfamiliar with thinking and talking about the built environment as a relevant factor in their work.
My team developed two Participatory Action Research (PAR) exercises in Kiziba and Kigeme refugee camps in Rwanda between September and November 2017. These PAR exercises, were aimed at testing the speculative potential of architecture through Lefebvre’s transduction methodology, which aimed “to encourage the creation of ‘experimental utopias’. Framed by existing reality, this [transduction] would introduce ‘rigour in invention and knowledge in utopia’ as a way of avoiding ‘irresponsible idealism’”. These PAR exercises aimed at incentivising what Edgar Pieterse terms ‘radical incrementalism’, yet with a focus on young children’s learning:
“Surreptitious, sometimesovert, and multiple small revolutions thatat unanticipated and unexpected moments galvanize into deeper ruptures that accelerate tectonic shifts of the underlying logics of domination. […] A disposition and sensibility that believes in deliberate actions of social transformation but through a multiplicity of processes and imaginations, none of which assumes or asserts a primary significance over other struggles.”
My goal in using PAR was to allow refugees to get involved in, and become informed about, decision-making processes regarding the built environment and young children’s learning within their camps. When Paulo Freire first introduced the idea of PAR, he also introduced the theory of ‘conscientization’, a process by which the ‘learners’ learn to perceive the social, political, and economic forces that influence them and learn to take action against the oppressive components of such forces.
imagined spatial change
imigongo mural making
public interest design studio
The PAR methods allowed me to disseminate my findings and gather feedback on them from refugee participants in order to develop direct benefits in the camp. The PAR exercises also allowed me to analyse the effects of the researchers (my research assistants and myself) in both Kiziba and Kigeme, and to test architecture, craft, and design as speculative tools through which to create new knowledge on how the learning environments of my case studies could be further improved.
imagined spatial change
At all data collection exercises, at the end of questionnaires, focus group discussions, game-based interviews, drawing exercises, and semi-structured interviews, research respondents were asked which spatial interventions they would propose in order to make the whole camp a more stimulating mosaic of learning environments and more child-friendly.The proposals were focused on three main intervention areas: the camp and the neighbourhood, the home, and the ECD initiatives. I translated these proposals into photomontages and drawings. On the one hand, to test whether these interventions would be buildable using locally available materials and skills, and on the other hand, to show them to the refugee respondents at a later stage to generate discussion on the topic.
The most prominent proposal – and the only consistent one – throughout all the camps and amongst the majority of the respondents, is ‘to have more young-children-friendly spaces with play equipment at the neighbourhood/village level’. All adult respondents and a quarter of all child respondents mentioned this proposal as one of their priority interventions.
Very few children in the Rwandan case studies, few adult respondents in the Southwest Ugandan case studies and almost any adult respondent in Kakuma proposed changes at camp level. This might show a certain disempowerment or disengagement with ‘public’ or ‘common’ life amongst these respondents which, to confirm, would require further research.
formal learning environments
The respondents actively involved in the formal and non-formal ECD initiatives– caregivers, mother leaders and young community mobilisers – gave answers geared towards improving spatial quality, by creating stimulating and didactic learning environments, while the answers of the home caregivers (less involved in the ECD initiatives) focused on quantity: the size, position and security of the ECD spaces. The former proposed that at all the camps’ ECD facilities should be ‘child-friendly designed’. They should be ‘structurally sound and durable’, ‘sheltered from the sun and the rain’, ‘easy to maintain and clean’, ‘have openings for ventilation and light’, be ‘fenced for security’, and ‘have enough well designed child-friendly playgrounds appropriately equipped with play objects’. The latter (the home caregivers), except those in Kakuma phase III, suggested ‘building more child-friendly, high quality ECD centres closer to the people’; ‘improving the existing ECD centres to serve all neighbourhoods’; and ‘expanding the existing ECD centres to include more classrooms, a fence with a gate, green areas, and access to water’.
Children respondents focused their proposals on the play, scholastic, and didactic materials available, and on the provision of food and water. In Kakuma phase III, Nakivale, and Kyaka II children suggested ‘classrooms with sturdy wall materials with openings and good iron sheet roofs’. All the children in the Kenyan camps, in Kyaka II, and Kiziba proposed an ‘ECD kitchen with provisions of sweetened porridge’. The children at Kyaka II, Kyangwali, Kigeme, and Kakuma phase III propose ‘access to water and clean toilets with hand-washing basins’.
Photomontage, new windows at preexisting pre-primary school
Photomontage, Kiziba quarter four maternelle, new windows and ceiling
Informal learning environments
Adult respondents in the Rwandan camps proposed ‘secure slopes and other risk areas – ravines, dumpsters and open septic tanks – with handrails and paving’; ‘curate and make safer the paths that children use to access schools’; ‘cover and improve the storm water drainages’; and ‘maintain and make latrines safer’.
Photomontage, mud murals and wider doors at homes
Photomontage, mud murals at open areas between homes
Photomontage, paving the paths.
Specifically, I developed two PAR exercises. The first entailed the development of murals using the traditional Rwandan imigongo technique. My choice of imigongomural-making was inspired by four particulars: the mud-wall decorations that many Congolese refugees use in their homes; the didactic drawings found in the majority of the schools outside the camps in Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya; the existence of the 300-year-old Rwandan wall-art tradition (imigongo) using locally available materials; and the pedagogical power of art as expressed in writings by Loris Malaguzzi, Maria Montessori and John Dewey.
The murals were designed to test the use of crafts and the creation of artefacts as a universal language, as a teaching tool and as an accessible instrument with which to trigger change. The process of making the murals was also intended to trigger conversations with teachers, neighbours and camp residents on the relevance of the built environment and the importance of its aesthetics for young children, on place-making, on culture and on the different current uses of the common spaces in the Kiziba camp where we developed the mural-making PAR. The murals were also intended to beautify and improve the two particular sites where they were developed, quarters two and four.
public interest design studio
The second PAR exercise consisted of a Public Interest Design (PID) Studio. Initiated in the 1990s in the United States, PID is a human-centredand participatory design studio practice that usually focuses on sustainable co-design practices with a social drive. The PID studio that I ran from September to November 2017 within the African Design Centre (ADC) research rotations programme in the camps of Kiziba and Kigeme in Rwanda involved three fellows from the ADC based in Kigali, and teams of ten to fifteen refugees in each camp.
The goals of this PID studio were threefold. Firstly, to improve the students’ understanding of forced migration in the Great Lakes region, cultivate their research and participatory skills and foster their creativity in communicating with different audiences and in dealing with complex issues. Secondly, to motivate future collaboration in the region between the schools of architecture, camp managers and refugees within the camps. Finally, to provide refugees with an opportunity to thoroughly comment on my doctoral research, lead a participatory process about issues related to young children’s learning from their own point of view, learn basic design tools and language, and foster their creativity and innovation in order to improve learning environments in their camps.